30 Oct 2014: Opinion

A Conservationist Sees Signs of Hope for World’s Rainforests

After decades of sobering news, a prominent conservationist says he is finally finding reason to be optimistic about the future of tropical forests. Consumer pressure on international corporations and new monitoring technology, he says, are helping turn the tide in efforts to save forests from Brazil to Indonesia.

by rhett butler

In the mid-1990s I visited a magnificent tract of lowland rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Some of my fondest memories are from that forest: hiking under the towering trees, wading in the crystal-clear streams, and delighting in its spectacular wildlife, including hornbills and endangered orangutans. But a few months after my visit, those trees were torn down, and the forest was obliterated. Today that area is an oil palm plantation.

The destruction of that forest set me on an odyssey that led to the creation of Mongabay.com, which has become a popular and influential website that

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ariel view of sabah forest

Rhett Butler/Mongabay.com
Rainforest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
closely tracks trends in the world’s tropical forests. For a decade-and-a-half, I have devoted tens of thousands of hours to the cause of protecting forests, engaging with the world's leading forest experts and visiting scores of forests around the world. During that time, I’ve continued to witness incredible destruction, and there has been reason for despair. But lately — for the first time, really — I’ve started seeing cause for optimism about future of forests.

Believe me, I’m no Pollyanna (our website has been called “the single most depressing site on the Internet”). My new view isn’t blind optimism — it’s informed optimism, because there are emerging trends that should give us hope that forests can be preserved.

To be sure, tropical forest loss has remained at stubbornly high levels since the 1990s, declining from an annual average of 11.3 million hectares during that decade to roughly 9.3 million hectares per year between 2009 and 2012. Consistently ranking at the top of the deforestation list were the usual suspects: Brazil and Indonesia, both of which have extensive forest cover and surging agribusiness sectors.

Yet hidden amid these high rates of deforestation is a trend that holds important — and promising — implications. Today, forests are more often cleared to produce commodities for consumption in urban markets and for trade, rather than for subsistence by poor slash-and-burn farmers. In other words, the tropics are shifting from poverty-driven to profit-driven deforestation.

This trend is significant because there are now relatively few entities doing the greatest share of damage to forests. Two generations ago, combating deforestation meant devising ways for burgeoning rural populations to feed
Dozens of big buyers and sellers of commodities are committed to excluding deforestation from supply chains.
themselves without chopping down forests for agriculture. Today, more often than not, it means persuading companies and governments to adopt safeguards that limit environmental damage but ultimately enable the continued growing of crops. In some cases these measures can yield dividends that go beyond the public relations benefits of green marketing and corporate social responsibility — they can produce real business gains resulting from improved management of supply chains and greater operational efficiency.

Most companies, however, don't move on their own — they are pushed, often by consumer-focused campaigns led by environmental groups, which have been leveraging international corporations’ sensitivity to criticism. The results since 2006 have been nothing short of astounding: Dozens of the world's largest buyers and sellers of soy, palm oil, cattle, and wood pulp have established policies committing them to excluding deforestation — and ending conflict with local communities — from their supply chains. The biggest coup came last month when Cargill, which sells $135 billion worth of commodities a year, committed to zero deforestation across all its supply chains.

And while there is always a danger of backsliding or cheating on these commitments, there are more tools than ever before to monitor and verify compliance.

Most critically, satellite imagery is widely available and is now increasingly incorporated into monitoring systems. For example, the Brazilian government and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an eco-certification body, are now requiring participants to provide data detailing the geographic coordinates of their landholdings. This information can be used to determine compliance with environmental regulations and standards.

Satellite data is also integrated into new platforms. The best example is Global Forest Watch, a project led by the World Resources Institute that takes data from a range of sources and puts it on a map, providing unprecedented insight into the state of the world's forests, including tree cover gain and loss, activity in forestry concession areas, and fire history. The integration of bi-monthly MODIS data provided by NASA enables Global Forest Watch to serve as a near-real-time deforestation detection system, similar to one implemented by Brazil about the time its deforestation rate began to plunge a decade ago. A study published last year by the Climate Policy Initiative attributed three-fifths of that decline to Brazil's monitoring system. Now that monitoring functionality is global.

Closer to the ground, other monitoring capabilities are also improving. Many observers believe the world is on the verge of a drone revolution, with conservationists hoping that monitoring by small aerial drones will greatly improve the detection of deforestation, illegal logging, fire, and poaching that would otherwise be missed by satellites. Advocates say drones could complement on-the-ground efforts by spotlighting places that need follow-up by authorities, which is the approach being used in a pilot
On the ground, camera traps, sensors, and mobile devices are enabling new approaches to monitoring.
project in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.

On the ground, camera traps, sensors, and ubiquitous mobile devices are enabling new approaches to monitoring. For example, Rainforest Connection, a California-based startup, has developed a mobile phone-based system that "listens" for gunshots, chainsaws, and trucks. When a suspicious sound is detected, the system relays an alert to local authorities, enabling quick action. In addition, new innovations in DNA analysis are allowing investigators to trace timber products back to their points of origin, potentially determining their legality.

These new technologies provide important tools for law enforcement, but whether action is taken hinges on political will. In the past, this has been far from assured, but that too may be changing.

Last month more than two dozen countries endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, pledging to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030. While critics note that high-level pledges don't mean a whole lot, some countries are actually taking concrete steps to address deforestation, with Brazil leading the way. Since 2004 the nation with the world’s most tropical forest has reduced annual deforestation in its Amazon region by nearly 80 percent. At the same time, agricultural output has increased sharply, putting to rest the assumption that deforestation and economic growth necessarily move in tandem. Establishing new protected areas, enforcing environmental laws, and private sector measures all played a part in the gains in Brazil.

There are even signs of progress in Indonesia, an environmental pariah for the better part of two decades due to large-scale forest destruction. In 2011, then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono established a moratorium on new logging and plantation permits across more than 14 million hectares of

View Gallery
Rainforest Connection sound technology

Rainforest Connection
Cell phone-based technology can help monitor forests for sounds like chainsaws and gunshots.
previously unprotected peatlands and forests — a move that was accompanied by a push to reform the bureaucracies that manage the country's forests. Those efforts were fiercely resisted by entrenched interests in the forestry sector, which have historically fought for policies that enable industrial logging and forest conversion, often at the expense of local communities. But that paradigm might be changing. Last month, several palm oil companies with substantial operations in Indonesia — Golden Agri-Resources, Cargill, and Wilmar — signed the KADIN Pledge calling upon the Indonesian government to adopt policies that support forest conservation. Asia Pulp & Paper, a major Indonesian forestry company, has done the same, raising the prospect that the Indonesian private sector could be on the verge of a monumental shift toward demanding pro-conservation policies from the government.

Consuming countries are also joining in the battle. Partly to protect their own domestic timber producers, the United States, Australia, and the European Union have adopted strict laws barring imports of illegally sourced timber products. The laws carry tough penalties for violators, making companies accountable for their supply chains. Meanwhile, Singapore has passed a law that aims to impose fines on companies deemed responsible for causing haze by burning forests in neighboring Indonesia.

Some small countries are even further ahead. Costa Rica pioneered the development of payments for ecosystem services in the 1990s and is widely viewed as a leader when it comes to developing business models designed to keep forests intact. In so doing, it has moved to a more lucrative service-based economy. In Mexico, the government has turned vast areas of forest over to community control, protecting forests in areas that
On the local level, there is a growing recognition of the role that communities can play in maintaining forest cover.
previously suffered from high rates of loss.

On the local level, there is growing recognition of the role that communities play in maintaining forest cover. Research published earlier this yearby World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative concluded that community-managed forests experienced an average deforestation rate that is 11 times lower than areas outside their borders. Legally recognized, community-managed forest amounts to 513 million hectares, or one-eighth of the world’s forests.

Some indigenous groups, including the Paiter Suruí in the Amazon, are looking at new business models that would allow them to earn livelihoods while doing what they have always done — preserve forests — by the local communities taking over management of conservation areas or payments from governments or companies for ecosystem services.

The emerging concept of payments for ecosystem services is another promising development for the world’s forests. While a market for forest-protected carbon under the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) mechanism has been slow to materialize, the initiative indicates that the world is starting to pay attention to the benefits afforded by healthy ecosystems. These benefits aren’t limited to carbon — forests provide water, help mitigate erosion, house biodiversity, and much more. Old-growth forests in particular are getting more attention, with growing pressure from advocates to exclude them from exploitation and protect them under environmental certification initiatives like the Forest Stewardship Council.

But while there is much to be optimistic about, plenty of risks lie on the horizon. Continued population growth and surging consumption will stretch the planet’s resources, increasing pressure on forests and other ecosystems. There’s also a real danger that consumers won’t continue to care about the environmental credentials of products, especially as global consumption shifts from West to East. And a failure by the world community to address climate change could leave forests severely degraded or worse off, whether or not they are protected —


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already scientists have detected large-scale die-offs from droughts in parts of the Amazon, a scary preview of what could lie ahead.

Yet I am hopeful. A recent trip to Indonesia illustrates why. In May I went to Sumatra to check out Global Forest Watch’s monitoring system in the field. Of interest was an area of forest within the Leuser Ecosystem, the only place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants live in the same habitat. Global Forest Watch maps showed pink spots within this remarkable protected area, suggesting deforestation had occurred in the prior few months. I was joined by a local NGO, and we used Google Maps on a mobile phone to get us within a few miles of the area.

The maps led us to a new road, at the end of which was an expanse of rainforest that had just been cleared illegally for an oil palm plantation. The local NGO has since referred the case to authorities and is now investigating how this newly developed plantation links to the broader global supply chain.

Thanks to recent zero-deforestation commitments, the market for palm oil produced in this manner is rapidly shrinking. And this same approach can now be applied by virtually anyone to any forest on the planet — a critical new tool for conservation.

POSTED ON 30 Oct 2014 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Forests Forests Pollution & Health Sustainability Asia Central & South America North America 


Good roundup. Another trend I find hope in is indigenous groups that have been getting very savvy about declaring and proving their customary land rights in places like Borneo through a combination of education, legislation, and legal precedent, then sharing that knowledge with groups in other regions and countries. Such established land rights can keep indigenous groups on their land, where they steward biodiversity very well.
Posted by Erik Hoffner on 02 Nov 2014

Hi Rhett,
As a Brazilian researcher working with conservation, I am not as optimistic as you are now. Although I recognize progresses in some of the areas you highlighted, I believe that Brazil is entering in an era of "turbulent waters" for biodiversity conservation. First, we had the changes in the National Forest Code, which represented the greatest environmental setback in the last 35 years in the country. The results of these changes are appearing just now: The government is unable to reduce even more the deforestation rate due to the “legal” deforestation allowed by the new Forest Code.

Then, we had an increase in changes in boundaries of Brazilian parks and reserves (PADDD) from 2008 on, driven mainly by the generation and transmission of electricity. It is no secret that the Brazilian government will dam all major Amazonian rivers to produce electricity by 2030. And for this to happen, the government has been operating through irregular changes in the licensing system of large hydropower plants under construction in the country. Just check how the licensing process of Belo Monte was conducted, and how the process involving the proposed hydroelectric dams on the Tapajós River is happening.

Third, our Congress is currently examining the proposal of a New Mining Code, which if approved (and it will be!) will allow mining within our parks and reserves and in their buffer zones. This same Congress is also evaluating a proposal that transfers to the deputies and senators the responsibility for the creation of new parks and reserves and the demarcation of Indigenous Lands. Well, if approved, and considering that at least 2/3 of our deputies and senators are deeply involved with the agribusiness sector, one should be not optimistic that we will have new parks in the country...

Fourthly, I would highlight an important legal change that few people realized the scale. The Law 140 of 2011 transferred the responsibility for surveillance and enforcement of administrative penalties involving flora, fauna and environmental licensing from the federal institute IBAMA to state and municipal environmental agencies. I believe that in the way it is being done this move will be deleterious to the conservation of the Brazilian biodiversity. With exception of few states, several others I am aware of are not yet prepared to take full responsibility for their wildlife enforcement, frequently lacking qualified personnel and/or infrastructure facilities. In its current way, such transition is producing large territorial and temporal gaps, whose result is an effective reduction in a system of surveillance and enforcement which is already insufficient to safeguard the Brazilian biodiversity.

Finally, considering Dilma Rousseff´s reelection, I do not expect any abrupt change in the course of the Brazilian environmental policy for the next four years. And this is very unlikely to happen also because the Brazilian economy presents now the worst indicators for the last 12-15 years. The focus for the next years will be on the economy and not on the environment. And, considering the agribusiness accounts for the second largest part of our GDP, we can expect that the sector will receive massive support from the government.

I would love to be wrong, but, unfortunately, I am more pessimistic now than a few years ago.

Posted by Enrico Bernard on 14 Nov 2014


What an optimistic statement:

"Last month more than two dozen countries endorsed
the New York Declaration on Forests, pledging to
halve deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030.
While critics note that high-level pledges don't mean
a whole lot, some countries are actually taking
concrete steps to address deforestation. Leading the
way is Brazil."

You buttress it with a variety of links to supportive
research findings but you neglected to mention:

1) Brazil refused to sign the New York Declaration

2) Philip Fearnside has argued that the key to holding
down deforestation has been the fragile central bank
policy of denying credit to those with outstanding
environmental fines and that this policy is threatened
by the ruralista farm bloc which gained an absolute
majority in Congress

3) That deforestation seems to have fallen among
large land owners (because of #2 above) but is rising
in proportional amounts among smallholders who
have no equivalent incentives

4) Forest degradation and small patch deforestation
is not covered in the official statistics

4) The expected Mining Law revisions, attacks on
protected areas, major roads and dams expected to
be promoted by President Dilma Rousseff and in the
new Congress

5) Antonio Nobre's report summarizing 200 Amazon
studies which concluded that that the evidence says
the forest system is unraveling and an immediate
"war effort" is now needed to save the Amazon forest
and the beneficial climate it produces for the "bread
basket" of South America.

I know that you have covered these issues
elsewhere. I just don't understand how one might
look upon these emerging realities and not be
Posted by Lou Gold on 14 Nov 2014

Hard to see how "progress" (in somewhat reducing the rate of forest loss) can be sustained for long in the face of relentless human population growth, over 80 million more each year, every year, (all wanting to consume) and with numerous countries, notably Iran and China, reducing efforts to promote lower population growth.
Posted by barry on 17 Nov 2014

I agree with you that there may be some hope for the rainforests. You mention both top-down, and bottom-up efforts, which of course for success, must eventually meet somewhere. Some indigenous groups have become more savvy by necessity, and the lucky few have had some successes. Yet others have been met with violence, even in the Amazon region. With the smaller list of mostly corporations in the deforestation business, what concerns me is their influence on the top-down initiatives. With development and economic improvement on the top of the list for some many states, let's hope that the community needs do not get lost.
Posted by Nora Sullivan on 19 Nov 2014


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rhett butlerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhett Butler is the founder and editor of Mongabay.com, one of the leading sites on the Web covering tropical forests and biodiversity. Earlier this year, Butler received the Parker/Gentry Award, the Field Museum's top conservation prize. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has reported on Asia Pulp and Paper's reforms to curb deforestation and desperate efforts to save the rainforest of Borneo.



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